When I thought about the reasons for teaching, learning, and working; I came to a surprising self discovery. All of my “whys” grows from my love for science. The attention to detail, diamond-like shapes of protein crystals (see above), the beauty of single molecules, and rhythm of biological processes. But the esthetics is not why I chose to stay with science. Despite a 6-year-long dry spell in publishable data and countless sleepless nights over failed experiments, it is the community of scientists and the impact scientific research can have on choices we make every day. Do I get the flu vaccine this year? Should I eat the yogurt with or with out active cultures? Should I go and see the doctor right now or wait and see?
The standard marketing speech to promote science courses and careers in science usually includes references to innovation and economy. Those are important reasons to support science in society. But for learners they are a tad impersonal. The justification to teach science in higher education, especially to learners leaning towards non-science majors, should be very personal. It should offer connections to their life right now. It is beyond me, why the connection has not been emphasized, as it was outlined by Alfred North Whitehead already in 1929…
I am training currently in the field of immunology. But my primary training is in biochemistry and protein biology. I have worked in structural biology to visualize proteins on atomic level. I have dabbled with virology. I prefer not to cage myself under a narrow field description. And any class I teach should not be caged that way either. That is why I have designed a class I would love to teach in the future. A class that combines biological sciences, journalism, and English. The class is called “Immunology and Society”. To put it extremely bluntly… Why learners should take this course and why this course was spawned in the first place, is to prevent anyone swallowing half truths and believing bull**** spouted at them.
So many choices today have huge impact on ourselves as well as on everyone surrounding us. There are several interest groups with their own agenda giving information and information from media sources can be confusing and contradictory. Understanding the connections between science and the choices, gives confidence in ones decisions. And confidence based on truth makes us brave. When we take fear out from learners, they can truly reach their potential in real life. I think this is what happened in Dr. Laude’s students, who were offered extra mentoring and support to help them fit into their university community, as reported in New York Times.
I want to free the learners from any major or society defined cages to make an impact of their own. Communicating learners discoveries in the “Immunology and Society” -class in the form of blogs, news letters, and tweets opens the connections learners have made to a larger audience. The lines between majors can be blurred even with simple tools like e-mail inquiries from learners to professors of majors not their own and video interviews made by students on the researchers on a campus or health care professionals in the area. To make this rewarding, a system for feedback is required and I am trying to figure out the best way to do that. The distribution of learners products via YouTube, blogs, and Twitter does lend itself for immediate feedback, given a public interest in the topics is strong enough.
Drawing yourself in a neat box as a human will hurt you. And letting other peoples ambitions to paint the walls of that box is just plain unhealthy. This concept was easy to understand in relation to choosing my style, my hobbies, and the people I connect with. With education the avoidance of boxes is still a struggle. When I chose to study biochemistry, I let the surrounding society affect me. The hype of bio business surged, and teachers and I agreed I was good at biology. So it was easy to follow the path.
Later the doubts kicked in. The bleak job market and increasing demands on academic researchers to finance their labs and function as secretaries and bank managers on top of research did a number on me. The re-evaluation of my why’s has been a long process. And it turned out my whys were just buried under stress. The idea of scientific community and impact it can have on choices society makes, were brewing as I experimented with dad’s crop samples and interviewed relatives for inheritable diseases study during high school.
Finding the personal why has guided me to graduate school and to connected courses. Making a difference by teaching in addition to research makes more of an impact for me, than either of them alone. The why of training scientists should not be only to boost a given country’s or person’s economy, or even make new innovations that lift the innovators to a pedestal for all to admire. This mindset can effectively separate scientists from surrounding society and further put different branches of science in their dreaded silos. Changing the way we dish out higher education can help prevent this.